Tyondai Braxton with the Wordless Music Orchestra, Caleb Burhans, conductor
Tully Scope Festival, Lincoln Center
Monday, March 7 at 7:30 pm
John Adams – Road Movies
Caleb Burhans – In a Distant Place
Louis Andriessen – Workers Union
Tyondai Braxton – Selections from Central Market and new compositions
Post-performance discussion with Tyondai Braxton and Ronen Givony
March 7, 2011 marked a brave direction for Lincoln Center’s Tully Scope Festival with an evening of music exclusively by composers who are (gasp!) still alive. This concert, which featured the music of Tyondai Braxton along with works from John Adams, Caleb Burhans, and Louis Andriessen was an important inclusion in this exciting and eclectic festival. Tully Scope would reinforce the importance of programming living composers two nights later with Kayhan Kalhor and Brooklyn Rider’s even more daring presentation of works by living composers including the New York premiere of Jacobsen’s “Beloved, do not let me be discouraged” and the World Premiere of Philip Glass’ “Suite for String Quartet from Bent.”
Mr. Braxton’s music, always passionately quirky and overflowing with echoes (and at times shadows) of composers as diverse as Debussy, Stravinsky and Berio as well as the Beatles, King Crimson and Gentle Giant, made quite a challenge for any artistic director to pair such diverse music with.
Having such a wide range of music to choose from and a new audience to perform for, (Tully Scope filled Alice Tully Hall with young listeners.) gave Artistic Director Ronen Givony ample opportunity to be daring. Appropriately, Mr. Givony chose to invoke the spirit of more recent influences and much to my approval, scheduled music by living composers.
If there is one influence that comes clearly through Braxton’s music it is John Adams. This choice of programming his work was intelligent. Unfortunately, “Road Movies (1995)” is not the most appropriate Adams’s composition for this program.
At times complex and intense (1st movement: Relaxed Groove is anything but relaxed) and other times movingly beautiful (the haunting 2nd movement: Meditative) “Road Movies“ has all of the elements that make Adams’ music his own: a mastery of minimalism which transcends the genre by never losing its strong sense of melody. Yet, these strengths of Adams are not obvious when this piece is performed in a big hall. An orchestral piece of Adams would have made a better connection with Braxton’s music.
Although I enjoyed the skills of Yuki Numata’s tone, precision and interpretation, which were fully on display during this performance along with the competent and often shining piano of James Johnston, which sadly got swallowed up by the hall; I would have preferred and hope to hear this piece again in a more intimate chamber setting.
Caleb Burhans’ “In a Distant Place (2008)” opened with a piano holding a steady pulse and slowly layered a second piano, then vibraphone, soprano recorder, flutes and finally string quartet. As each instrument was added, I was pleasantly surprised by the beauty of the colors created; but ultimately disappointed at where the piece never went. The piece grew in volume as the full ensemble’s force swelled to fill the hall only to fade away, ultimately exposing the pianos once again without ever going anywhere of great interest.
Louis Andriessen’s “Workers Union (1975)” is an experiment in pitch and a challenge of performance precision. On this evening, the Wordless Music Orchestra played with great gusto and amazing precision. “Workers Union,” scored for “any loud sounding group of instruments” has guidelines for pitch rather than traditional notation. The piece, in theory, can sound quite different at each performance. In practice, it doesn’t really make a difference which combination is used, it always sounds the same: like an academic exercise.
“Worker’s Union” is popular with many young orchestras; its syncopated rhythms and fast tempo keep it interesting for the first 3 minutes. After that (anywhere from 12-17 minutes later) it becomes a test of the listener’s patience and a testament to the performers endurance. This piece, along with Terry Riley’s “In C” should be retired from the repertoire of young orchestras and should be exiled to the classroom.
A more daring approach to the first half of the concert and more beneficial to new music in general would have been to program newer compositions by relatively “unknown” composers. Burhans’ “In a Distant Place” worked in this sense. Adams’ (now 16 years old) piece worked because of its relevance to Braxton. The time-slot given Andriessen’s 36-year-old piece could have been used to give the audience, not to mention some promising composers a chance with something new.
The second half of this concert was an excellently programmed, focused journey through the creative landscape of Tyondai Braxton’s music with selections from “Central Market (2008)”.
The first piece, “Opening Bell,” evoked a bustling market at the start of the day and was a sampling of what was to come. Despite some predictability in this piece, (there is a strong pop element to all of Braxton’s work) and some imbalances in the orchestration, with the electric guitars sounding oddly naked at times, as they drowned out the strings and brass, brilliant and surprising color combinations were able to come through and kept me eager for what could happen next.
The balances were better adjusted for “Uffe’s Workshop,” an exciting turn from “Opening Bell.” “Uffe’s Workshop,” an in-your-face, heavy, driven piece, is reminiscent of late King Crimson but with more varied and interesting textures. Braxton introduced the kazoos in this piece at which point Braxton’s craft really started to shine through. Originally a placeholder in the studio for the trumpet, Braxton smartly chose to keep the kazoos (along with slide-whistles, beat-boxing and vocals) in the final mix.
“The Duck and the Butcher” again invokes the spirit of so many “art-rock” groups like the Dixie Dregs; but with updated sounds that keep the music sounding fresh. My only disappointment was the seeming lack of improvisation. There is a guitar solo, as this piece demands there be. Yet, it did not sound fully improvised and hardly departed from the recorded version.
“Psychedelic Bolero” are the words I scratched while hearing Braxton’s “Dead Strings”. Without adhering to the rhythms of the Spanish dance, the piece did offer the intensity that the bolero is known for. For the first 7 minutes, “Dead Strings” was almost exclusively electronic/electric with wordless vocals, live sampled loops and syncopated hits. This trance-inducing piece never bored: it built up with more strange sounds layered at every turn, until this electronic wall-of-sound dropped out, exposing the acoustic elements, the strings and winds, keeping the piece moving along. Slowly, the electronic sounds were reintroduced to the acoustic and seamlessly grew together into something new and rather strange without ever sounding absurd.
The heavy bass drone of “Unfurling” punctuated by a distorted slide-whistle sound (was it a guitar?) was a slight distraction from the delicate and intriguing percussion part and the ever-creeping tremolo of the strings. I attribute this distraction to an imbalance in the mixing and not in this otherwise fascinating composition. Certainly some of this disturbing element was intentional, Braxton’s music never letting the listener become complacent.
The final piece of the evening “Platinum Rows” was a festive piece, which could serve as a paradigm for what Tyondai Braxton’s music is all about. I could clearly hear the nod to Stravinsky in the orchestration and its Berio-like colors in the vocals, singing “Pop! Pop!” as a constant reminder of that ever-present, but never overwhelming source of colors in Braxton’s music.
Tully Scope should do more concerts like these as part of this extremely diverse, “A Tully Scope Mash-up” festival (Emanuel Ax and Jordi Savall are on the same festival!); but with less of a mish-mash in one program.